When Arab traders made a fortune in the pearl trade in Bombay

Central Restaurant on Mumbai’s bustling Mohammed Ali Road, with its standard Mughlai, tandoori and Indo-Chinese dishes, is a popular joint with families who live in the area. Only a minority of the restaurant’s clientele are likely aware that a century ago it was a hub of Arab social activity in Bombay.

Opened during World War I, Central was one of the places where the city’s thriving small Arab community gathered to catch up on local gossip. It was a place that offered dishes “appreciated by the inhabitants of various Arab towns” and where devotees from the Gulf “could have a meal and listen to the Arab news”, wrote researcher Saif Albedawi in a 2017 article titled Gulf Pearl Traders and Their Life in Bombay. “It was a social place where they met up with friends after a long day of work. They had different types of dishes, mostly cooked without the chillies that Indians use frequently.

Bombay at the time was a major international hub for the pearling industry, which attracted merchants from the Arab world. “The pearl trade has led leading Gulf Arab merchants to locate some of their family members in Bombay,” wrote Talmiz Ahmed, a retired diplomat who served as India’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates. and in Oman. article 2018 for the Milli Gazette. “These included: the Al Bassam, Ali Reza and Al Gosaibi families from Saudi Arabia; Al Ibrahim and Al Jinai from Kuwait; Al Zayani and Al Urrayed from Bahrain; Al Midfa and Al Sayegh of the Trucial Sheikhdoms, and the Al Sultan family of Oman.

Some of these families made their fortunes in Bombay during the first three decades of the 20th century, owning flats in the city and summer villas in what was then called Poona. Among them was a wealthy Kuwaiti merchant by the name of Muhammad Salem al-Sudairawi. History buffs have successfully crowdsourced images of al-Sudairawi, several of which have have made their way to the internet. A photograph from 1918 shows al-Sudairawi in his car with his three sons and two daughters outside their home in Poona.

fluctuating fortunes

Arabs who managed to accumulate enormous wealth were known as tujjar – merchants based in port cities who traded in large commodities. But in Bombay, the truly wealthy families were a tiny minority within the Arab community. Most of the city’s Arabs were petty traders who bought pearls on ships and then sold them in markets in south Bombay. Or they were brokers working as intermediaries between Indian pearl merchants and West Asian merchants.

Along with the success stories, there were several examples of Arab merchants losing a lot of money in the pearl trade due to economic problems in India and volatility in international markets. A particularly bad year was 1913. India faced a banking crisis, with banks such as the Credit Bank of India going bankrupt and depositors rushing to withdraw their money. This crisis affected both the stock market and the pearl market. On October 27, 1913, India time wrote that the banks were suffering because they had made heavy advances to merchants who exported pearls to Europe and the United States.

“There is no survey of pearls in the European and American markets, as buyers believe that Indian pearl dealers will have to offer them at even lower prices,” the newspaper wrote. “If the banks call upon the pearl merchants to repay their loans, the latter will be faced with a dilemma.” The article stated that the banks would need the money they lent to meet their own financial obligations, adding: “If the pearl market improves, the situation will improve significantly; but if there are a few failures, serious effects will be felt not only in financial circles but also on Indian trade in general.

The same day as India time report, The New York Times wrote an article about the crisis with the title “No more failures in Bombay”. The newspaper said: “While this crisis was ongoing, a new shock came today in the form of the failure of an Arab pearl merchant doing a big trade. His liabilities would be well over $300,000. Many other failures soon followed.

The Arab merchant the American newspaper was referring to was a Kuwaiti by the name of Shaikh Abdul Rehman bin Shaikh Abdul Aziz al Ebrahim, who was popularly known as “Mr Lion” and owned several horses that raced in Poona and Mumbai. In its insolvency petition, the trader said it incurred heavy debts which it was unable to repay due to falling pearl prices and lack of demand in Europe. “It was only the expected that happened in this case, but it caused more anxiety than all the previous failures because some local banks lent heavily on the consignment of pearls,” India time said in a report on October 28, 1913. “The situation has become more critical than ever and the effects of failure are believed to be widely felt.”

In his petition to the Bombay Insolvency Court, the Kuwaiti merchant who lived in Chowpatty said his debts had accumulated up to “about seventeen lakhs of rupees”. While covering the legal proceedings, the Indian newspaper made mention of the Arabian, Australian and English racehorses of ‘Mr Lion’ who regularly won competitions in Bombay and Poona.

In addition to al-Ebrahim, several small pearl traders, Arabs and Indians, went to court saying they were unable to repay their debts.

Crisis of 1913

The pearl market managed to recover after a protracted slump that began with the financial crisis of 1913 and continued until the end of World War I in 1918. Arab pearl traders continued to come to Bombay for the next decade.

“The exact number of Gulf Arabs who lived in India during the first half of the 20th century is not known, but their numbers certainly increased during and after the end of the pearl fishing season,” Albedawi wrote. The community at its peak is believed to number 500 people.

Most Arab-owned establishments were in Moti Bazar at Kalbadevi and Mohammed Ali Road. “Gulf traders set up many of their offices there for their business, and the wealthiest among them owned buildings, including Hussain bin Essa and his sons,” Albedawi added. Bin Essa, who moved to Bombay in the 19th century from the modern United Arab Emirates, was one of the pearl trade’s greatest success stories.

Mohammed Ali Road, which was split beyond recognition by a 2.4-kilometer-long flyover, housed the offices and homes of small Arab pearl merchants, brokers and shipowners whose ships carried not only goods and traders, but also transported pilgrims to the Muslims. holy places in Western Asia. Nearby, Pydhonie had a number of small and medium-sized hotels that catered to short-term Arab travellers. Some of these hotels still exist.

Cultural exchange

The stay of the Arabs in India led to an exchange of ideas and set the tone for political changes in both parts of the world. Many wealthy Arab families sent their children to study English in India. They were so influenced by the Indian liberation movement that it inspired them to promote similar initiatives at home, says Talmiz Ahmed in his article for the Milli Gazette. Indian freedom fighters supported the independence of the Gulf countries. “As early as 1928, the Indian National Congress passed a resolution expressing sympathy to all Arabs in their struggle for freedom,” Ahmed said.

The pearl trade continued to be lucrative in the 1920s, but a few factors towards the end of the decade changed the situation. The invention of cultured pearls in Japan and the 1929 New York stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression crushed the demand for Gulf pearls in Europe. Unable to bear the losses, many Arab traders ended their business in Bombay and returned permanently to their homes in the Gulf.

A few merchants stayed and took up other businesses, but by the late 1930s cosmopolitan Bombay had lost much of its Arabic flavor. Arab engagement with the western Indian city declined after Indian independence, but did not completely end. The Royal Family of Kuwait, for example, purchased a few buildings on Marine Drive in the 1950s – Al Sabah Court and Al Jabriya Court. Unfortunately, the two buildings have been the subject of disputes over the past decades.

Bombay once again became a popular destination for Arabs in the 1970s after the Gulf experienced an oil boom. Arabs chose to return to Bombay to enjoy the nightlife, monsoons and shopping after Lebanon was embroiled in a civil war in 1975. Although younger and wealthier Arabs now prefer to visit the cities of the he West, Mumbai – as Bombay was renamed in 1995 – is still a popular destination for part of the Gulf population. While the pearl trade is history, the city remains an important cultural and economic link between India and the Arab world.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for Historical and Heritage Writings for 2022.

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